In a chaotic day of fighting and fear, U.N. peacekeepers used helicopter gunships against rebels in eastern Congo on Monday, trying to halt a rebel advance as government troops hastily retreated and civilians attacked U.N. headquarters demanding protection.
U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said the peacekeepers in helicopters fired at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the provincial capital of Goma.
Rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma in defiance of calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a U.N.-brokered cease-fire signed in January.
In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back Monday from the battlefront north of Goma _ fleeing in tanks, jeeps, trucks, commandeered cars and on foot. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of refugees pouring onto the main road.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told The Associated Press that rebel fighters were within seven miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles (five kilometers) from downtown Goma, told the AP they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.
Nkunda says he is protecting the region's minority Tutsi population, about 3 percent, from a Hutu militia that fled to Congo after helping to perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which a half million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Tens of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By nightfall, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.
The civilians and soldiers were surging south from a major army base seized by the rebels on Sunday. As the crowds reached Goma, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.
It was the second time in a year that peacekeepers had fired on Nkunda's rebels. In December, U.N. officials also used helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the vast Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.
Earlier Monday, crowds of protesters attacked four U.N. compounds in Goma with rocks, venting outrage that the U.N. peacekeeping mission _ the biggest in the world with 17,000 troops _ has been unable to protect them from the rebels. The crowds shattered windows and damaged cars at the main U.N. office, van den Wildenberg said.
Residents opposed to rebels, including Hutus and those who lived in refugee camps after fleeing earlier conflicts, feel particularly threatened.
Peacekeepers were forced to fire into the air outside a downtown U.N. compound, the U.N. spokeswoman said. But one witness, Emmanuel Kihombo, said a U.N. soldier fired directly into the crowd and hit a man in the stomach.
Van den Wildenberg said two people were reported killed outside the U.N. compound when the peacekeepers opened fire. She said a student also reportedly died, but it was unclear whether that was from stoning or a bullet.
Kihombo said the protesters also hurled stones at about 20 Tutsi students, but they all managed to run away.
It was an indication of dangerously building anti-Tutsi sentiment fueled by the success of Nkunda's rebels.
Civil society leaders met with U.N. officials to demand they halt the rebel advance. Their leader, Jason Luneno, said they did not understand how U.N. soldiers sent to protect the people could fire live bullets at them.
Luneno read a statement from several groups saying they held the Congo government and the U.N. peacekeepers responsible for the "dire crisis" because they had the power to halt the rebels.
"Today, we told the governor to tell the president and the prime minister that if the army and the U.N. peacekeepers do not succeed in mastering the situation and stopping the rebel advance, the people will descend into the streets to demand the government resign," he warned.
A man standing behind him held a handwritten poster threatening: "The wrath of the people is imminent for Tuesday." Another poster said: "For peace, we are all dying."
Congo's government on Monday repeated charges that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government was sending troops across the border to fight with Nkunda _ a charge Rwanda denies and the U.N. says is unfounded.
State radio on Monday announced a new Cabinet for Congo, including a new defense minister, and quoted President Joseph Kabila as declaring it "a government of combat to re-establish peace."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and "good faith" efforts to peacefully resolve the issues that have so far hindered progress in peace talks.
Nkunda's rebels overran the government's military camp at Rumangabo, north of Goma, on Sunday despite heavy shelling from government soldiers. Peacekeepers were still trying to reach thousands of people still trapped behind the front line at Rumangabo.
The rebels also have seized the headquarters of Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the world's 700 mountain gorillas, which are considered critically endangered. Park director Emmanuel de Merode said Sunday's seizure of the headquarters was "unprecedented, even in all the years of conflict."
The ragtag Congolese army, cobbled together from defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars from 1997-2003, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralized and poorly paid.
Nkunda is believed to command about 5,500 highly trained and disciplined fighters.
Congo has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war that have kept people from profiting from its vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources.
Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006. But the new government has struggled to assert its control of the sprawling country, which is the size of Western Europe.
The commander of the embattled U.N. Congo peacekeeping force, Lt. Gen. Vincente Diaz de Villegas of Spain, resigned Monday. Brig. Gen. Ishmeel Ben Quartey of Ghana was named to serve as acting force commander until a successor was named.
Associated Press photographer Karel Prinsloo contributed to this report from Kibumba, Congo.